Race Day on Casco Bay

Lobstermen blow off steam—but hopefully, not their engines—in boat-racing circuit

PHOTO: KATIE JOHNSON
PHOTO: KATIE JOHNSON

By Tom Groening

I’m squatting in the small cockpit of an outboard-powered sailboat racing across Casco Bay. Lightning bolts are striking the mainland and islands to our west. I look up at the aluminum mast, then at the woman at the wheel. She’s wearing a wide grin and a purple feather boa.

Everything is going to be just fine, I think. After all, what could go wrong when lightning and sailboat masts come together?

Then my hat flies off.

But I’m grinning, too, even though the rooster tail churned up by the twin, 250-horsepower outboards is lapping over the rail, soaking my pants.

As discordant as these elements might seem, they are, in fact, entirely appropriate for the sometimes wacky, sometimes wild, and always fun world of lobster-boat races. This hot and humid August Saturday, it was Long Island’s turn to host the contest. The race circuit is a summer tradition in Maine, with towns and harbors hosting the events from Jonesport and Beals Island in the northeast all the way to Long Island in the southwest.

The Long Island races this year lean toward the wacky end of the spectrum, in part because there were no cash prizes for winners. The sailboat I raced in, aptly named Wild Women, was actually the top half of a sailboat that had been attached to the hull of a powerboat. We raced—and won—in an “anything goes” class. The only thing the hybrid boat had in common with the others in that heat was that all had been built by Steve Johnson, who owns and operates Johnson’s Boatyard on the island.

Johnson was at Sandie Moran’s side—the feather boa–wearing woman who piloted Wild Women—when the boat won that final heat of the day. It ended up being the final heat because the Coast Guard contacted race organizers and said the lightning was headed our way, and it was time to end the fun and be safe.

The two were clearly enjoying the afterglow of their victory, suggesting that even with all the goofy trappings of the race, a competitive edge runs through the event.

In other harbors, the races are very competitive because of the prizes, and, of course, because bragging rights are at stake. This, the 2015 race, was the second year the Long Island event has counted in the points totals. As one participant explained, it’s very much like NASCAR, with racers racking up points through the summer.

HARD WORK, THEN FUN

Earlier in the day, making the rounds on the docks and town landing as observers and participants gathered, the race seemed like the island version of a county fair. At about 11 a.m., Moran was stocking coolers with beer on wild women, but that chore was the last of many.

“It’s an awful lot of work, organizing it,” she said of the race. “Keeping it going is a challenge.”

Why do it?

“So these guys who work so hard can cut loose,” she says.

That explanation is repeated by many. Though most fishermen will tell you they love being their own boss, love being out in the elements, lobstering is solitary, repetitive work. Hanging out with other fishermen, on the water, talking boats and engines, and yes, drinking beer, is a nice way to break up that solitude.

The blindfolded dinghy races. PHOTO: KATIE JOHNSON
The blindfolded dinghy races. PHOTO: KATIE JOHNSON

Travis Otis and his father, Keith, of Searsport, build lobster boats—the Northern Bay 36-foot among them—and were on hand to race. Their boat, First Team, named for the unit Keith served with in Vietnam, features a 410-horsepower diesel engine, and will compete with like-size boats.

“This is my family reunion,” Keith says. “We’ve been racing for 15 years, so I know all these jokers,” he adds, gesturing to the boats docked adjacent to his.

Travis offers what is the best description of the race scene: “This is the perfect mix between family reunion and tractor pull.”

How serious does the Otis family take these races?

“Pretty serious,” Travis says, cocking his head and smiling. They’ve won their class seven years running.

Chris Smith of Richmond, a town up the Kennebec River, uses his boat misty, a 33-foot Crowley, to chase eels, the adult versions of elvers. It’s his eighth year on the race circuit.

“You get to travel up and down the coast and meet nice people,” he says, an observation his wife Linda seconds.

Lee MacVane, in his 30s, is originally from Long Island but now lives in and fishes from Cape Elizabeth. This is the only race he’s doing, running his 46-foot, 670-horsepower boat, aptly called Dominator.

“I don’t know,” he says, thinking about why he participates in the race. “It’s just a good chance to get out and unwind, and see people you don’t normally get to see.”

Bill Randall of Hiram is a summer resident of Long Island.

“I’m here with my grandson Preston and my son Ryan,” he says proudly.

“This is a fun event. It’s a good time; they got good eats.”

John Murphy of Portland is a summer resident of the island—a “summer dub,” as he calls himself, though his family has been coming here for five generations—and he loves the event.

“A lot of these people work really hard,” he says, repeating the refrain. “It’s their way of having a good time.”

Before the races begin, there are shoreside events, like a dinghy race in which the rower is blindfolded and directed by the other occupant of the boat. There’s also a race in which participants swim in those bulky survival suits.

A band plays in the parking lot and hot dogs and burgers are being grilled, with sale proceeds going to the island fire and rescue department.

My boat can kick your boat's ...
Bragging rights are at stake. PHOTO: KATIE JOHNSON

RAFTING UP

Out on the water, the real fun begins. Katie Johnson, the photographer for this story, is an island native, and she gets us aboard her stepfather Scott Wood’s boat, Wild One.

In a matter of minutes, three, five, and then eight boats have tied up, side to side, in what is known as “rafting up.” The coolers open, food and beer is passed around, and people climb from boat to boat, greeting old friends, shaking hands with new ones, and taking photos. Teen girls in bikinis on the boat to one side of us leap into the water to cool off, as does a dog.

When it’s time for a boat to race, it’s untied and the other vessels close ranks, as if the racing boat had never been there.

On the radio, there’s evidence that racers have jumped the gun: “I think we’re going to have to do the second race again.”

This prompts a comment from Randy Durkee, who’s come down from Islesboro to race Black Diamond, tied next to us: “Jesus Christ, they ain’t got it figured out yet?”

When it’s time for Wild One to race, everyone leaves the boat, except for Wood at the helm, Katie and I, and George Ross, who visits the island every summer from Marietta, Georgia, and loves the races. The engine cover is lifted off as we chug over and join a handful of boats, lined up along a vague line in the water. When the start signal comes by radio, the engine roars and the boat lurches forward.

Within a minute, black smoke is coming off the engine block, Katie is bouncing around the deck, shooting photos, and George sits motionless in a chair near the stern, a grin that seems to have been carved into his face his only reaction. A minute later, it’s clear we won’t win, as one vessel pulls away.

Sitting at the stern.
George Ross enjoys sitting on the stern of Wild One. PHOTO: KATIE JOHNSON

Back with the other boats, the fun resumes. We’ve got the best seat in the house to see the finishes, and corresponding to friendships with fishermen, there’s loud rooting for one or another boat.

Jennifer Franz, who with her husband Rick lives on nearby Great Diamond Island, is among the folks aboard Wild One. She tells the story of being on a racing boat several years back: As the race got under way, the captain looked over at a competitor’s boat. “He’s cheating!” the lobsterman shouted.

“How do you know?” she asked.

“Because I’m cheating,” he replied. “And goddamn it, he’s beating us!”

Cheating—if there is any—could be achieved by introducing fuel additives or modifying the engine.

Franz tells another story that sums up the lobster boat-race vibe. It was one of the first years she and Rick were on a racing boat, and when that boat was readying to race, she asked if she should move her bags and cooler to a non-racing boat so the racer would be lighter.

An older woman said, in a sweet and motherly voice, “You do whatever suits you, dear.” The sentiment, Franz says, is that having fun is paramount here.

Jennifer and Rick visit Long Island often, and though they are not a fishing family—they own and operate Andy’s Old Port Pub on Commercial Street in Portland, a sponsor of the race—many of the fishermen know the couple and exchange good-natured banter with them.

Water-gun war! PHOTO: KATIE JOHNSON
Water-gun war! PHOTO: KATIE JOHNSON

Copious amounts of alcohol are consumed throughout the day, but it seems to be mostly festive fun. Joe Schnapp, the island deputy, was out and about, patrolling the shore, but he was all smiles and hellos, walking among the crowd.

“It’s a wonderful time. It’s a good community event,” he says.

And when the Coast Guard radios organizers to pull the plug in deference to the lightning, the deputy’s take seems like the right way to sum up the day.

Tom Groening is editor of Island Journal.